Tom Cruise, putting a dimmer on his mega-watt smile, is back busting heads in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, once again playing the ex-military-cop-turned-road-warrior in defense of the disenfranchised. Critics were snotty four years ago when Cruise first played Reacher, because the 5'7" actor is the physical opposite of the six-five, 250-pound bruiser that crime novelist Lee Child created on the page. Get over it. The admirably defiant star, still a force of nature at 54, brings his own agility and quick wit to the role.
Besides, the haters are missing the point. Never Go Back is the 18th Reacher novel (the 21st will be out in November). So ask yourself why 100 million readers and counting are willing to buy into the adventures a homeless drifter with only a toothbrush to his name, who hitchhikes across a broken America looking for justice he can't get from institutions or politicians? Oh, I don't know. Have you watched the presidential debates? This is a character with resonance for our time. The more pertinent question is: How well does the movie run with that idea?
Never Go Back comes closer to nailing that concept than its predecessor, though it's marching orders are still to deliver a fun, action-plus ride. Edward Zwick, who worked with Cruise on 2003's The Last Samurai, replaces Christopher McQuarrie in the director's chair and keeps the mayhem going gangbusters – or at least enough to cover up the plot holes in the scrip, written by Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Richard Wenk. The Cruise-Zwick reunion makes sense since Reacher (nobody calls him Jack) is every inch the modern samurai. Knocking heads with power has soured the former military man on playing nice with others. And yet here he is going back to his old D.C. office to meet his replacement, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Why? He likes the sound of her voice on the phone. If only Donald Trump were that romantic.
Lickety-split, which is the only way this movie likes it, Reacher learns that Turner has been arrested for espionage and that he's wanted for both a 16-year-old murder and knocking up a waitress who's hit him with a paternity suit. Not our guy. Naturally, he breaks Turner out of prison and they're off on a series of narrow escapes to expose the baddies. The villains – Patrick Heusinger as the Hunter; Robert Knepper as power-mad General Harkness – are disappointingly generic. But it's the corrupt system that Reacher wants to nail to the wall. Smulders is a livewire as our hero's sparring partner, but she still believes in the rules repped by her uniform. Danika Yarosh, a teen firebrand as Reacher's maybe daughter, forms a stronger connection.
Zwick pulls out all the stops with shootouts and chases, especially in a climactic battle during a New Orleans Halloween parade. But it's the character-based scenes that put meat on the bones of a popcorn movie that could have slid by on pulp escapism. Cruise finds the core of Reacher in his eyes, with a haunted gaze that says this lone wolf is still on a mission and still a long way from home. That's the Reacher Lee Child created in his books. And Cruise does him proud.